Members of the the Coca-Cola Employees Union (CCEU) continued their protest actions on July 2, 2022, in response to management’s continued refusal to negotiate good faith and attempts to exclude the company from labour law provisions. Union members are also demanding and end to the violence and threats by goons deployed by Coca-Cola Bangladesh’s 3rd party “waste management” contractor, Md. Shahidul Islam Shahid.
The peaceful protest began on June 4, 2022, but was postponed after goons of Coca-Cola Bangladesh’s 3rd party contractor, Md. Shahidul Islam Shahid, visited workers’ homes and threatened their families with violence. The abduction and vicious beating of the Coca-Cola Bangladesh union president on June 7 by these goons had already created a climate of fear.
The union relocated dozens of union members and their families to temporary accommodation further away from the factory for their safety. The protests in front of the Coca-Cola factory then resumed on July 2.
One of the supervisors of Coca-Cola Bangladesh’s “waste management” contractor videoed the protest to identify the workers who joined the action. The same night goons visited the workers’ homes and threatened them and their families. They also forced workers’ family members to come to the contractor’s office near the factory. They made explicit threats, telling the father of one worker:
He is your only son. He shouldn’t join this protest anymore, otherwise he’ll be in danger.
Using his influence and connections, Md. Shahidul Islam Shahid is also threatening to have landlords to evict union members and their families if the protest continues.
A news story published on June 14 under the headline কোকাকোলার কারখানায় ‘আন্দোলন দমাতে’ শ্রমিকনেতাদের ওপর হামলা [Attack on workers’ leaders to suppress movement at Coca-Cola factory] described last week’s brutal attack on the union president by goons of a 3rd party waste management contractor for Coca-Cola Bangladesh. Within two hours the story disappeared due to what one source simply described as “pressure”.
After being released from hospital and recovering, the union president went to the police station on June 15 to follow up on the complaint filed against Coca-Cola management over his abduction and vicious assault. The police claimed no such complaint exists. This is despite the fact that the Coca-Cola Bangladesh management named in the police complaint had raised concern about allegations of their involvement. Instead of challenging these allegations, the police complaint – like the news story – disappeared.
Meanwhile, goons of the 3rd party waste management contractor providing services to Coca-Cola Bangladesh continued following union members home, intimidating and threatening them. In the factory managers and supervisors told workers they will be terminated if they resume their protest actions.
With protests stopped and the disappearance of the police complaint and the only news media story, the ground has been laid for Coca-Cola Bangladesh to now claim that nothing actually happened. If that occurs, then it will be a massive failure of corporate governance. Making the evidence disappear is not the purpose or intent of the human rights due diligence that should have protected union leaders and members in the first place.
In the face of growing international condemnation, Cambodian authorities have released eight of the 11 NagaWorld trade unionists from prison on bail. Eight union leaders of LRSU were arrested in January and another three union activists were arrested in February for exercising their internationally recognized right to strike. Eight women were released yesterday while three men remain in prison, with possible release tomorrow. Although released from prison, the charges against the union leaders – charges that effectively criminalize trade union activities – have not been dropped.
The eight union leaders in arrested in January sought release on bail in order to represent their 365 members still fighting for reinstatement and over 3,000 LRSU members denied the right to union representation. Thousands of workers and their families face severe economic hardship and debt due to the actions of NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour.
To avoid negotiations with the released LRSU leaders to reinstate hundreds of union members, NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour created a fake union organization on the eve of their release from prison.
The new organization, called Union for Rights and Common Interests of NagaWorld Employees, was registered in record time. What would usually take months was completed in a matter of hours. The fake organization was quickly established to act as a counterpart in “negotiations” with NagaWorld management. The next step is for the Ministry of Labour to grant the fake organization Most Representative Status (MRS), depriving LRSU members of their collective bargaining rights. It is also expected that NagaWorld management exploit the climate if fear inside the hotel casino megacomplex to forcibly deduct union dues for the fake organization from the wages of the majority of workers.
The actions by NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour are a desperate attempt to show the world that the rights violations have ended and the dispute is over. Just in time for an international tripartite mission to Cambodia scheduled for the end of March. Yet the actions of NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour in creating a fake union organization and continuing to persecute LRSU members once again violates ILO Conventions Nos 87 and 98 on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
LRSU has once again made it clear that it seeks good faith negotiations with NagaWorld to secure the reinstatement of unfairly terminated union members and for those opting to accept redundancy to receive their full legal entitlement to separation pay. At the same time the international community must make it clear that all charges against the arrested union leaders must be dropped and comprehensive legal reforms must protect trade union rights and prevent criminalization of trade union activities.
The international community must also make it clear that setting up a fake union organization and creating a climate of fear to silence workers fools no one.
At 2:50PM on Wednesday, February 9, three union leaders wrongfully detained on Saturday under COVID-19 laws were charged and sent to prison for pre-trial detention. Chaup Channath, Sao Sambath and Seng Vannarith were among several striking union members detained on February 5 by authorities under COVID-19 laws. However, because of their role as strike leaders they were charged and sent to prison on February 9, as the government desperately tries break the 53 day strike and cover up the human rights violations at NagaWorld that led to strike action.
The detention of Chaup Channath, Sao Sambath and Seng Vannarith adds to the eight LRSU leaders already imprisoned a month ago and awaiting sentencing: Chhim Sithar (Union President), Chhim Sokhorn (Union Secretary), Kleang Soben (Union Negotiation Committee), Sun Sreypich (Union Negotiation Committee), Hai Sopheap (Union Negotiation Committee), Ry Sovandy (Union Negotiation Committee),Touch Sereymeas (Union Activist), and Sok Narith (Union Advisor).
The actions of the Cambodian government violate several international human rights conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ILO Convention No.87 and Convention No. 98 on freedom of association and the right to organize and collective bargaining. This compounds the systematic violations of ILO Conventions No.87 and No.98 by NagaWorld management over the past year, when it imposed mass forced redundancies without negotiations with the union, LRSU, and selectively terminated the union leadership and active members. Ministry of Labour officials then colluded with NagaWorld management to prevent effective mediation by the Arbitration Council, forcing LRSU members to vote for strike action.
Instead of resolving this labour dispute during the one month cooling off period in November 2021, management refused negotiations and forced through the unfair termination of union leaders and members. Once strike action began on December 18, 2021, government authorities launched an attack on the union, raiding the LRSU office and arresting leaders and members.
In a further attack on the right to freedom of association, the right to strike and the right to freedom of assembly, new arrest warrants were issued for four women union leaders on February 6, 2022.
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In a blatant example of the injustice NagaWorld workers are fighting against, authorities arrested at least six striking union members under COVID-19 laws on Saturday, February 5. In contrast, no action was against NagaWorld management for covering up two COVID-19 outbreaks caused by casino customers (known to have tested positive) in February last year. In fact, the mass termination of union leaders and members – which is the reason for the current strike – occurred shortly after the union demanded the company do more to protect workers’ health and ensure COVID-19 safety.
On Friday, February 4, the Ministry of Health issued a letter declaring that a pregnant worker who went for a check-up tested positive for COVID-19. Without informing her directly the letter was issued publicly, disclosing her identity. She immediately responded on social media saying that due to her pregnancy she had not visited the picket line for the past 10 days. Ignoring this, the Ministry of Health called on all workers on the strike picket to have COVID-19 tests within three days.
The union, LRSU, agreed to comply with the instruction from the Ministry of Health and arranged for striking workers to go for COVID-19 tests in small groups for their own safety and security. Despite this effort by the union, local authorities moved to arrest striking union members on Saturday, February 5 – just 24 hours after the Ministry of Health announced that the workers had three days to be tested. To instill fear and disrupt the strike, authorities arrested six striking union members under COVID-19 regulations. In an attempt to create disorder and to provoke a confrontation with police, the picket line was surrounded at 9:50PM on Saturday to prevent workers from leaving and the street lights were turned off. Union members maintained their peaceful demonstration and refused to be provoked.
Supporters of the union and human rights defenders condemned the government’s actions as hypocritical. In November 2021 the government of Cambodia declared a full reopening due to the successful vaccination rate (98.5%) and the country was also opened to fully vaccinated visitors with no quarantine required. Over the past three months the Ministry of Health has not issued any statement calling for contact tracing and testing. The public statements issued against the striking NagaWorld workers are clearly politically motivated.
The actions against striking union members are in stark contrast to the government response to COVID-19 outbreaks at NagaWorld in February last year. One outbreak was linked to guests who had tested positive but allowed to enter the Naga 2 casino complex on February 25, 2021. While police removed the guests who had tested positive, workers were locked in the casino and forced to keep working. The authorities took no action against the company and more outbreaks occurred.
On March 1, 2021, LRSU wrote to management urgently requested testing for the casino to be closed for cleaning and for members to be tested. The union made five demands:
1. The management to immediately apply comprehensive safety protocols and measures in accordance with WHO guidelines to limit the community spread of COVID-19 in the hotel casino complex [Naga 1 and Naga 2] and ensure the safety of all staffs.
2. All workers of NagaWorld should remain at home without any punishment and on fully salary until it is declared safe.
3. All places in both building must do deep cleaning and disinfecting from specialist group.
4. Stop putting pressure on workers at all forms and all workers must have covid-19 test and confirm negative before return to workplace.
5. Stop suppressing information and to have greater transparency in tackling the community spread of COVID-19
Management refused and health authorities did nothing, allowing the crisis to escalate to the point where the integrated hotel casino complex was forced to close temporarily. The next step was to terminate en masse the union leaders and members who raised health and safety concerns.
Only now – 50 days into a strike that is embarrassing both NagaWorld and the government – the COVID-19 testing and safety measures the union called for in March last year are being used politically to disrupt and disband the strike.
See Naga World Hotel Casino ignored union calls for stricter COVID-19 safety measures. Now hundreds of workers are paying the price – June 3, 2021
Join the international call to RELEASE 8 imprisoned trade unionists, REINSTATE 365 unfairly terminated union leaders and members, and for the company to NEGOTIATE with the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of Naga World (LRSU) to restore the rights and protect the well-being of 4,000 union members.
ACT NOW! Please support the call to release jailed union leaders!
Please add your organization’s logo, print the placards and join the protest!
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